The Clan Ivarr

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Anyone reading up on northern Britain in the ninth and tenth century will usually find all the histories dominated by the kings of Wessex. Various Scots and Vikings are wheeled in, stomped on, and wheeled off. Usually, we only hear of what they did to the southern English, and rarely of what they did to each other.

Looking at the histories from the opposite point of view produces the story of a powerful Norse-Irish dynasty from Dublin, a clan that was just as ambitious as the ruling family of Wessex, and just as determined to gain itself a kingdom in the north of England - the Clan Ivarr.

The history of northern Britain is beset with problems, especially where dates and names are concerned. The various annals and chronicles which remain from that period are often open to several interpretations. In writing this brief history of the Clan Ivarr, I have frequently had to make up my own mind about which way to go, but I hope I have made the right decisions.

Ivarr the Boneless

According to tradition, Ivarr the Boneless was the founder of the Clan. The son of Ragnar Lothbrok, brother of Halfdan 'of the Wide Embrace' and Ubbe, Ivarr had already been active in Ireland before he arrived in England in 865. After spending the winter in East Anglia, Ivarr and his brothers marched north towards York. The city was, at the time, the capital of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, the people of which were engaged in a bitter civil war between King Osbert and his rival Aelle. The Scandinavians actually found the city undefended, and entered it on 1 November 866.

With no one to oppose them, the Scandinavians began to build up the defences of York, to make it theirs. On 21 March 867, the warring Northumbrians put aside their differences and attacked the city. The attack failed, and both Osbert and Aelle were killed. Northumbria, once one of the greatest kingdoms of England, was now a Viking possession.

The victorious Scandinavians did not stop there, however. In 865, the East Anglians had meekly given in to them, handing over food, horses, and winter quarters. In 870, the Scandinavians returned, to kill King Eadmund and take the kingdom for themselves.

Northumbria? East Anglia? Where next?

For Ivarr, the answer was Ireland. In 871, he and Olaf the White were in the fortified harbour town of Dublin. These two men seem to have formed quite a team: Olaf, who arrived in Dublin in 853, had already spent quite a few years in southern Pictland, taking hostages and demanding tribute, while his son, Thorstein the Red, was busy doing the same thing in northern Pictland. Using Dublin as a base, they launched a remarkable attack against Dumbarton Rock, the traditional and ancient capital of Strathclyde. After a four-month siege, one of the few the Vikings ever carried out, Dumbarton fell, giving them access to the heartland of Scotland. Olaf and Ivarr captured a large number of English, Celts, and Picts -so many, in fact, that they were supposed to have needed 200 ships to get them all back to Dublin! - all of whom were due for the slave markets in the Islamic countries of the Mediterranean.

When Ivarr died in 873, he was called `king of the Northmen of all Ireland and Britain'. Olaf is not heard of after that date and may have also died or retired. We do not know who took over the kingship of Dublin - perhaps Ivarr's unknown son? - but he did not last long: dissent between the different Viking clans gave the Irish a chance to regain Dublin, in 902.

Ragnald of Corbridge

Viking activity was not restricted to Pictland and Ireland: along with the fall of Dumbarton, there had been settlements in south-west Scotland, in Galloway, which had weakened the ability of the Strathclyde Celts to prevent Vikings taking over parts of north-west England, in Cumbria and Westmoreland.

One of the leaders of these Vikings was called Ragnald, and he is called a 'grandson of Ivarr'. Was he one of the Clan? Probably: Ivarr was apparently Danish, and the Danes were called Dubhgall or 'black foreigners' by the Irish. Ragnald was known as 'king of the Dubhgall'.

Ragnald's arrival in the history books may indicate that the Westmoreland colony was now strong enough to expand. In 913, it is recorded in Irish sources that Ragnald 'the king' arrived with a great many ships - and, therefore, men - and seized the lands of Ealdred of Bamburgh. Ealdred was an English (that is, Anglian) nobleman, holding a large tract of land, probably a part of the Northumbrian kingdom that Ivarr helped to break up, and acting as king there.

Ealdred, fleeing from Ragnald, went north to Constantine king of the Scots and persuaded him to join in an alliance against these Dubhgall. Unfortunately, their combined forces were defeated by Ragnald at Corbridge, on the Tyne: all the English nobles except Ealdred and his brother Uhtred were killed, and the Scots were scattered. Ragnald divided the territory between two of his men. Legend has it that one of them was particularly hostile to the Church until, in the words of F. T. Wainwright, 'after interrupting a service by Bishop Cutheard, he involuntarily joined his Satanic father in Hell, providing an interesting and instructive spectacle for the congregation.'

Leaving the site of his victory - presumably now in the hands of just one of his men - Ragnald went off to follow in the family tradition: he fought a naval battle off the Isle of Man in 914, and was involved in fighting between the Irish and Scandinavians near Waterford in 917. In 914, Æþelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, built a fort at Eddisbury in Cheshire in response to some unspecified threat from the north. I think we can put a name to that threat.

In 918, Ragnald was back in the north with an army. The Scots were ready for them on this occasion, and they met for battle on the banks of the Tyne. The Scandinavians drew up in four divisions and a reserve. The reserve was led by Ragnald, while one of the divisions was led by Guthfrith, a 'grandson of Ivarr' and therefore Ragnald's brother or cousin (in the family tree, he is shown as a brother). The battle was a long one, with reverses on both sides. Ragnald's reserve eventually forced a stalemate: although Ealdred was killed, Ragnald returned his lands to his sons. This second battle was of more than local interest, and may have included Scots and Mercians in the army that faced the Scandinavians. The citizens of York had called upon Æþelflæd for help in 918, suggesting that they were afraid of what might happen if Ragnald won. Well, he didn't win - but he didn't lose either. Æþelflæd lost - she died in the summer - and so did the people of York, for Ragnald marched south and took the city.

Ragnald's success was probably due to the heavy losses of the other sides in the battle. Records speak of a great deal of damage to the land in south-east Scotland and north-east England, caused, no doubt, by the campaigning that either preceded or followed the battle. Whatever the reason, Ragnald was now king of the city his grandfather had taken in 867.

Kings of York

Ragnald's seizure of York was a determined attempt to create a kingdom. Within months, he was minting coins and engaging in diplomatic talks with the kings of North Wales, Scotland, Cumbria, and Strathclyde. Unfortunately, we have no idea what happened to him! In the 920s, York was being ruled by Sihtric, who was either his brother or cousin - he is another 'grandson of Ivarr' and Guthfrith's brother.

England was being ruled at that time by King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, who took the throne in 925 at the age of thirty. Athelstan was not a soft king: he was a warrior in the tradition of his grandfather, father and aunt, and was determined to have an English kingdom that reached to the borders of Strathclyde. His ambitions worried the northern kings, but, when he met Sihtric at York, Athelstan gave away his sister in marriage to the king of York, in return for the Scandinavian becoming Christian. It seemed as though the Clan Ivarr was secure in its throne.

That security lasted until 927, when Sihtric died and Guthfrith took over. Athelstan invaded Northumbria and expelled Guthfrith and Olaf, Sihtric's son. He entered York, demolished the Scandinavian fortifications, and distributed the loot he found there to his army. For the first time ever, a southern king ruled directly in York. Maintaining that rule was to keep north and south at war for the next quarter of a century. Athelstan drove north, to Bamburgh, where Ealdred (probably the son of the one killed in 918) was given a stiff talking-to and became the King's man again, then onto Scotland, where he burned and pillaged while Constantine could only look on. Athelstan was unstoppable.

By 937, Athelstan's rule covered all of modern England, and he was more emperor than mere king. The northern kings, now relegated to vassals, decided to pay him back for the years they had spent as his subjects. A grand alliance was formed by all the disaffected leaders. Of interest to us is the presence of Olaf Guthfrithsson of the Clan Ivarr, who was king of Dublin. This mighty alliance marched south, to meet Athelstan and his forces at a place called Brunanburh.

The location of this battle is undecided, but it was certainly the Midlands. Athelstan attacked first with a dawn assault, and the battle raged 'until the stars came out'. The northern rebellion was shattered. Among their dead were two sons of Sihtric.

Another Chance

Athelstan died in 939, and left the throne to his half-brother Eadmund, a young man of eighteen. For Olaf Guthfrithsson, over in Dublin, it must have seemed like a good chance to regain the Clan Ivarr's lost fortune: York.

In no time at all, Olaf's forces were on their way, and the Scandinavian settlers of York ignored their promises of allegiance to Athelstan and elected Olaf again. The Clan was back in York.

Olaf was not content with just Northumbria, however: he had a score to settle, and a willing population on his side. He swept down to the Danish towns of the Five Boroughs in 940, only stopping when the people of Northampton resisted his assault. Olaf turned west, to Tamworth, and took the town with much slaughter. Then he withdrew to Leicester with his plunder. Eadmund and his fyrd, caught out by the speed of the campaign, surrounded Olaf at Leicester. Undeterred, Olaf and his army forced their way out at night, inflicting a serious blow upon the English. Eadmund was too badly mauled to pursue the matter, and had to hand over the Five Boroughs to Olaf.

Olaf turned north, attacking his former ally, Ealdred of Bamburgh and reaching the Firth of Forth. There, depending upon which version you read, he either died of natural causes or was struck down by St Balteri: either way, it was a piece of good luck for Eadmund.

Squabbles over York

The Northumbrians chose as their king Olaf's cousin and namesake Olaf Sihtricsson (also called Anlaf Cuaran, from the Irish spelling of his name). This Olaf was not the fierce antagonist his cousin had been, and he lost the Five Boroughs to Eadmund in 942. The following year, he went so far as to submit himself to Eadmund, and was baptised. This was just like his father, who had married Athelstan's sister in 926 and remained loyal to Wessex until his death.

The Northumbrians took a dim view of this. Olaf was not the sort of king they wanted, and someone approached Guthfrithsson's brother, Ragnald. The Northumbrians gave Olaf the boot in 943 and made Ragnald king! Olaf still remained in the north, though, and the two cousins began to discuss their respective claims in the time-honoured fashion: with war. For Eadmund, it was all too much. Both men had visited him to seek his acceptance of their claim, and he lost his patience in 944. He marched into Northumbria and sent them both packing. (One chronicler even suggests that Ragnald was killed.)

The Clan's Wane

Eadmund's death at an assassin's hand in 946 brought about another bout of trouble up North. In 947, the Northumbrians elected themselves another king, but this time they did not go to the Clan Ivarr for one. The only candidate, assuming Ragnald was dead, was Olaf Sihtricsson, who had already been found wanting. Instead, they elected Eirik Bloodaxe, son of the king of Norway.

Eirik was only king for a few months before Eadred, Eadmund's brother and now king of Wessex, had him forced out. In his place, Eadred installed Olaf Sihtricsson, but I don't think he was a happy king.

In 954, the Northumbrians once again elected Eirik Bloodaxe as king of York, and Olaf Sihtricsson was unemployed again. He appears once more in Ireland, in the following year, then we hear of him in 980, after the Scandinavians were defeated by the Irish at Tara. He died on a pilgrimage to Iona.


Thus ends the saga of the Clan Ivarr, something which has not yet been given the full treatment the family deserves. Perhaps someone will someday sit down with all the different annals and chronicles and put their story together properly? They have every right to such a history - more right than Eirik Bloodaxe, at least!

Original article by Mike Farmer 1993